Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pulp: a film about life, death and supermarkets

Filmmaker Florian Habicht before a screening of his documentary Pulp: A Film about life, death and supermarkets, Civic Theatre, Auckland, July 25
This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 15
Florian Habicht's Pulp: a film about life, death and supermarkets is pretty much a work of genius.  I don't always respond this way to Habicht's films so either I'm growing more sophisticated (unlikely) or something else is at work.  
A meditation on fame, aging, music, sex and even death, the documentary is driven as much by the 'common people' of Pulp's home town Sheffield as it is by so-real-it-hurts footage of the band's last ever show - in Sheffield.  The film winds its narrative between songs 'Common People' and 'Hardcore' allowing the thematic concerns of both to surface in a way which is both sophisticated and satisfying.  
Female singing groups, a female dance troup, a musician, three random little old ladies, a newspaper seller, two kids and a couple of butchers all share their thoughts on Pulp, their home town of Sheffield and life, in the candid and charming way audiences have come to expect of characters in Habicht's films.  
The fans are something else - the woman from Georgia, USA, the guy from Germany (interviewed in German because Habicht is that rare breed - a truly bilingual New Zealander), two Australian twins and an English girl who leads a round of 'Underwear' while waiting with other hardcore fans to get entrance to the concert hall.  Their zealous love of the band serves as a perfect, understated reminder that Pulp are FAMOUS, even now, and this leads to a contemplation of what that means for the band members, most of whom (frontman Jarvis Cocker excepted perhaps) seem to aspire to be common people.  Indeed, an early sequence has drummer, Nick Banks, explaining that Pulp sponsored his daughter's soccer team, so now his daughter gets to be embarrassed that her dad's 'crap band' is all over their tops.  Oh the self-deprecation!   Later on guitarist Mark Webbey recounts a grim time in the 90s when he hated what he was doing passionately.  His desire for an common life was being thwarted by having to play in a band to thousands of screaming, happy fans.  
Cocker opens the film and is a vehicle for thinking about fame, performance, sex and aging - all of which are things he is, of course, intimately connected with.  His young female fans are unfazed by his age.  One of them waxes lyrical about his on-stage thrusting (of which there is plenty).  There is an interesting thread that addresses the way Cocker writes about sex, which is to render the embarrassing awkward bits into song.  And why he got into a band in the first place - to get girls to make the first move.  Which eventually brings the film, naturally, to the song 'Hardcore'.
Cocker also shares a few thoughts on aging (he doesn't get a buzz off it but can live with it) and the idea that the Sheffield gig is a chance to do their final concert properly.  The concert sequences are the most powerful, interesting rendering of the concert experience I've ever seen, and the way the band, Cocker in particular, interacts with the audience is stunningly open.  A Canadian reviewer suggested that for Pulp "sing along with the common people" isn't just a lyric - it's a mission statement.'  All of which sets us up to feel the band's 'death' more profoundly.  The final frames before the credits roll are given to the fans standing outside the concert venue, contemplating a return to every day life.  For them, and for the band, the journey is over.  
If at times I wanted more of the band's history I'm willing to forgive the omission.  The film's concept was so humble and such a gentle and interesting mediation on the process of living. This is the last thing you would expect of a band documentary, except that this is a Florian Habicht film.  The collaboration with Pulp was obviously a meeting of minds.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Pigeon antics?

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 14

Ok - this is a small piece of sheer speculation, but has anyone else noticed that city pigeons in New Zealand are a) huge, and b) often possessed of a subtle patch of iridescent blue/green feathers around their heads and necks?  I wouldn't have even noticed except that I've recently been in the US and the pigeons are smaller and darker there.  This observation or hallucination has caused me to wonder if the city birds are interbreeding with the odd kereru.  The internet has been no help so I may remain doomed to wonder.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 13

For a reason known only to himself, my partner has begun watching the TV series M*A*S*H from the beginning.  Although I'm trying to avoid TV (I'm a binge-watching freak who must be stopped) I've been in the same room as at few episodes recently and I'm impressed at how well it's aged.
Each episode manages to mix comedy and drama in a way that M*A*S*H made its own - the ludicrous nature of war, the psychological toll, the odd juxtaposition of educated, liberal doctors and the bureaucracy of the army.  The dialogue is pin sharp still, the stories fresh if no longer original, and if the cutting is a little clunky, the acting is as committed as the day it first hit celluloid.  The interaction of the main ensemble rings, if not true, then certainly familiar for anyone who's ever worked in a team.
There are things to criticise of course.  In its sexual politics it's completely of the 70s - all the woman are nurses and all the doctors are men, there's a revolving set of sexually available ladies, widespread infidelity and sexual harassment as a narrative staple.  The six-character ensemble, features a single female character (for there can, of course, be only one), her moniker is 'Hot-lips' and she's the main object of sexual attention for the rest of the cast.  
But - all of that said, there's a degree of complexity in Margaret Houlihan's characterisation which belies the very liberal positioning of the show.  She's a Major, out-ranked by only one other character, she's a careerist (with occasional regrets) and she's shown time and again to be extremely competent at her job.  This is the reason she garners more respect from the rest of the characters than her partner, Major Frank Burns, aka Ferret-face, who is known to be a bad surgeon.  
Margaret's value as constructed in the narrative comes from the approval rating she gets from the 'star' Captain Hawkeye Pierce.  I would read this as a Lacanian configuration in that her 'meaning' is determined by a man and we as the audience read with his assessment of her.  However I confess myself to be charmed by the way she is valued both for her professional competence and for her sexual attractiveness - she even gets to have a sexual relationship with a married man and still be seen as a goodygoody.  This comfortable duality would no doubt collapse completely under a more rigorous reading, but its complexity is a welcome relief from the oft-coined Madonnas/whore construction.  
On consideration, there are many worse narrative representations of woman I could have grown up with.  Although she unhelpfully emphasises the idea that there's only one spot for women at the top and she doesn't often lead the narrative, 40 years down the line Margaret Houlihan is looking pretty darn good, especially compared to a lot of the two-dimensional roles available to woman in contemporary media.  M*A*S*H is alright...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 12
The Wall Street Journal today published an article citing several studies which have found seven hours sleep per night is probably optimal for health and wellbeing.  This is one hour less than the previous recommendation of eight hours but still more than most Americans probably get most nights.  Can we assume the same statistic applies to New Zealanders? - probably, if I'm anything to go by.  Yawn.
Happily, when indulging, scientists have reassured us that we can rest easy in the knowledge that it's impossible to overdose.  We just wake up when we're done.  Amazingly physical truisms like this, taken for granted by my mother and all those who came before her, now require scientific verification. But since we have it, I'm going off for a seven hour nap.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Conservative Manifesto flaw

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 11
I was at my sister's house the other day when, with a horrifed expression rising, she asked if I'd been targeted to receive Conservative Party messaging.   Her air of disgust had more reasonance after I read the leaflet she was referring to.  It wasn't so much that I disagreed with almost every piece of policy - it was more the way it revealed a profound ignorance of New Zealand's system of government and its constitution.
Case in point:
"The fact that in this day and age Maori are treated as 2nd class citizens and victims drives us nuts.  Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same old thing over and over, but expecting a different result.  Try something new.  We stand for equal rights and representation for all New Zealanders, plain and simple.  Nothing loony about that."
1) Maori occupy a specific place in New Zealand society but as their position as 'second-class citizens' and 'victims' derives directly from colonisation which obviously began well before the 1867 Native Schools Act and establishment of the Maori electorates which are being obliquely referred to above.  If Maori lost proportional representation and opened the door to language loss that year, they lost far more in the subsequent illegal annexation of land by the New Zealand government.  The government which couldn't constitutionally exist without the Treaty, signed in 1840 - well before 1867. 
3) Via the Waitangi Tribunal, the New Zealand government has repatriated and will repatriate about 1% of the resources taken from each hapu.  The process is indeed flawed, but stopping it before it reaches a natural conclusion is unfair to hapu who are still waiting for their compensation.  It will also make no material difference to the resources available to the rest of New Zealand.  And, given that the rest of the country is about 90% composed of land stolen from its original owners, frankly the suggestion to quit the process is just a bit morally repugnant.
5) Maori have been very under-represented in parliament since the establishment of the Maori electorates.  Indeed these were originally intended to limit Maori representation.  However every non-male, non-white group in society is under-represented in the parliamentry system and this is generally considered to be a problem.  Abolishing the Maori electorates is not going to suddenly produce true proportional representation - for any group.  And since Maori can't vote on both rolls, and since tau iwi and Maori can stand in any electorate, general or Maori, there's no procedural problem with the Maori electorates currently.
The policy referred to in this post is what political pundits call a 'dog-whistle'.  In other words it is supposed to mean little to 'ordinary New Zealanders', whoever they are, but act as a rallying call to hard right voters.
I'm not sure if it's craven cynicism or if Colin Craig actually believes what he's saying.  But either way, New Zealand's government is based on the Treaty, without which it could not constitutionally exist, and the Treaty enshrines the duality of governance in this country.  If you don't understand that then you shouldn't be in parliament.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the Park

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 10

Spying on the world

Climate Voter

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 9
Image: Left to right - Satty Puaria, his son and another drummer, Takuu Atoll School Concert 2008 
Today Greenpeace did a Facebook post containing the following comments on climate change from Bill English:
"It's a non-issue because there are more pressing concerns"
"There is still debate about the evidence of islands sinking in the Pacific"
"Climate change mitigation policy is a luxury we can't afford."
In 2010 I was part of a team who released a documentary, There Once was an Island, about the impact of climate on a unique Pacific community.  Thinking back on that experience, I made the following response on Facebook before signing on as a Climate Voter:
If you're living on an atoll that's one metre above sea level and climate change is going to cause that atoll to flood catastrophically with increasing frequency, I don't think you're worried about whether the island is 'sinking' per se.
If we don't mitigate climate change, the Pacific (amongst other places) will lose cultures and languages and the people directly involved will lose everything. And that's alongside what's going to happen for the rest of the world's weather, food production and usable land.
Climate change and what we do about it matters.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Histology Lab

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 8
Today I had a chance to see the inside of a histology lab for the first time since under-grad study. It was a whistle-stop tour.
Histology is the study of tissue and cells.  In this particular lab (and no doubt in lots of others) samples are prepared by embedding tissue in liquid paraffin wax which cools to a solid.  The resulting wax block with the sample in it is sliced super-thinly, and the slices (5 micrometres or one cell thick - I think) are mounted on glass slides and stained.  The stains give colour and contrast to samples that would otherwise be largely colourless and translucent, allowing greater detail to be observed.
While we were in the lab we looked at various slides, including a human lung sample at 4x, 10x and 40x magnification.  At 40x I was able to see the distinctive donut shape of blood cells, still very tiny, inside a blood vessel, as well as the nuclei of other cells in the sample which stained a dark purple.
The human body is a fascinating place and so is a histology lab, with samples of dead people literally everywhere.  I have to say that part of my fascination was the visceral (hah) reaction I still have to this treatment of the human body, even as I comforted myself with the knowledge that everyone whose mortal remains had been rendered into a sample had given full and informed consent.
But it's interesting to reflect that taboos surrounding the body after death have remained with us, even after the Renaissance opened the door to systemacised study using cadavers.  Could someone haunt a sample of themselves, for example?  Is there a spiritual dimension to this?  Or are we as corporeal as every other mammal on the planet?  We certainly look very similar under the hood.